WHAT SUMMER SLAM TAUGHT US: A 3-POINT PLAN FOR WWE
Once cooler heads prevail and feelings aren't so hurt on all sides, there are a lot of positive lessons WWE can learn from this year's SummerSlam.
And I do not mean that in the condescending “Here’s what I’m going to teach you!” kind of way (I'm an advocate for the WWE being exactly what it really wants to be without making concessions to an audience that it simply isn't designed for). Any reaction to any creative endeavor yields a lot of incredibly useful data.
So what data does the crowd's reaction in the Barclay's center really give us?
Is it that fans are ungrateful?
Is it that WWE is out of touch?
It's time for a different conversation altogether. Rather than excusing or chastising the fan's behavior or nitpicking the booking decisions, I want to stay focused on tangible, unambiguous takeaways that the WWE would actually be inclined to consider.
My goal with this piece is to offer something that goes beyond the blame-game and the finger-wagging that defines our community to arrive at something genuinely useful to the company. The pro-wrestling industry could benefit from taking a few long, deep breaths, and counting to ten.
If I were to give a powerpoint presentation about SummerSlam 2016 to the WWE’s higherups in Stamford CT, approaching it all with an unbiased point of view in an attempt to process the information, here is the simple, three-point-plan I would offer. There are certainly a lot more takeaways than what's listed below, but these are, I believe, the three simplest, most useful lessons for the WWE and the pro-wrestling community to consider.
- KICK-OFF SHOWS & CROWD-FATIGUE -
No more two-hour kickoff shows.
These kickoff shows burn these crowds out and the length of time intensifies their smarky “hijack the show” tendencies as a pay-per-view wears on (even when a show or a match is really good).
They get tired and restless, like children in the back seat of a car during a never-ending road trip wondering, "Are we there yet?" When the kids in the backseat don't really know the destination (match-order/main event) they get even more obnoxious.
If you're a parent you know how awful that situation is. If you've been a kid in the backseat, you know how awful that situation is. Who's right and who's wrong doesn't really matter past a certain point; the experience itself is inescapably difficult and equally frustrating for all involved.
No amount of alphabet games and sing-alongs (or high spots) can cure it. The kids are definitely going to get bored and they’re definitely going to lash out, and mom or dad or both are going to pull over to the side of the road and start screaming. It’s not right to lash out, but we know that someone will lash out, and we can prepare for this inevitability.
We can take action to mitigate that easily predicted response.
Less is so much more. Shorter car rides are easier.
Do not worry about squeezing your rosters onto the cards or killing time with pre-show matches. Have a fixed, definitive start time for the live-audience, a lean card where every match matters, and then let the live crowd's experience of the show be an easy, manageable three hours. Their sustained enthusiasm will help contribute to a more positive environment and a more enjoyable viewing experience for the people at home.
On the Network, perhaps have an entirely new kind of kickoff show similar in style to WWE 24 where viewers get to see the behind-the-scenes work that goes into setting up the event. This will help cultivate an environment of appreciation for all the work you do. Your fans would love to see the ring being set up, the stage being built, Triple H mentoring a talent, Mick Foley laughing with Sasha and Charlotte, and so on.
It would help build the world you want your fans to believe in, and anticipation for the pay-per-view would reach a fever-pitch prior the opening pyro.
- WHY ARE THESE FANS SO ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT? -
Today's "smart" crowd was conditioned to be anti-establishment through good storytelling during the Attitude Era, and the years that followed. People who grew up watching Steve Austin defy the Mr. McMahon character would go on to help raise a generation that viewed authority figures through a similar, anti-establishment lens; the well-crafted story of Austin's rise to prominence has become truth in the eyes of today's generation of viewers.
Due in part to the blurred-lines of the WWE's fiction, its fanbase simply isn't smart enough to distinguish between the evil, fictional WWE and the real-world WWE. Even those fans who are able to make the distinction are still affected by it; the way they’ve internalized the story they’ve been told inevitably affects their perception of the company if for no other reason than the fictional WWE and the real-world WWE share the same name.
We are all now suffering as a result. Even those who comprehend the "work" of wrestling regard the real-world WWE as a villain, an Orwellian nightmare designed to oppress the "more-talented" and the "more-deserving" members of the roster. The "smart mark" defaults to "going against the grain" when the WWE, by its very construction, is all grain.
A company-decision of any kind is regarded as the enemy because that's the story these fans were told for nearly twenty-years. That story is as ingrained in their fandom-DNA as their understanding that a foot on the ropes breaks a hold.
In a case of pure irony, you were too good at telling that anti-establishment story and you've cultivated an audience of real-world Steve Austin's, Daniel Bryan's, and CM Punk's. They may be entitled and ungrateful (as many demonstrated in Barclays and often during RAW), but it's because the story they've been watching nearly their entire life told them behaving that way was "cool".
If you do not wish to have this type of fanbase, then a new creative direction or a new narrative foundation needs to be established; one that is not about the “coolness” of being anti-establishment. Tell a new story and you will get a new result. Tell a story about your company and your characters that has nothing to do with authority figures or being anti-establishment or the dark side of corporate structure.
Instead tell the story of athletic competition and the will to become elite in the sport of professional wrestling. That is a universally appealing, simple story. It’s easily consumed by the masses, always appreciated by the diehards, and proven to be incredibly entertaining.
The message, for so many years, has been, “We’re here to entertain you, we’re here to put smiles on faces”. That gives these fans too much power. The company’s goal becomes so specific that it only allows for two outcomes; smiles or frowns. That tells the fans their frowns are just as important as their smiles, that their mood, that their behavior, no matter how rude, is entirely justified and indicative of objective value. For them, there is a direct connection between their overly intense emotional reactions and the actual quality of the show. If they don’t smile, if they’re not entertained by everything then they default to dismissing all of it and, sadly, missing out on a lot of great WWE moments. They truly believe, perhaps without even realizing it, that their boo and their cheer is a kind of magic that makes the WWE machine work. These fans think: push who we cheer, don’t push who we boo. It’s as if they believe their clap for a comeback actually makes a wrestler “comeback” when in fact it is the good wrestler who has provided them that illusion of power. It’s time they were carefully reconditioned back into being viewers with the illusion of being participants rather than direct participants with the power to derail a massive television show that’s taken decades to perfect.
The WWE is like an alpha wolf trying to lead its flock in a particular direction. Currently the sheep are convinced they're wolves because the alpha wolf permits them to think that way.
This means that the fans can gradually be led in a new, more beneficial direction, one where they no longer believe their opinion should shape the WWE's booking, or, at the very least, where the majority of the people watching WWE are not the vocal, frustrated niche-fan.
- YOU ARE DISNEy, NOT WHOLE FOODS -
The WWE brand is bigger and more universal than the hipster IWC-niche, and the WWE doesn't need to cater to them in its narrative nor in its venue-selection. The WWE is a massive organization with unimaginable resources. It is mainstream. It is not designed to be a niche and it will not be embraced by those who thrive in the niche.
You succeed when you are the opposite of a niche. The niche-fan has NXT. The niche-fan has the entirety of independent wrestling at their disposal. Be as unapologetic in your mainstream power as indy-wrestling fans are in their niche-power.
The kind of wrestling fan who would look at the WWE Universal Championship and immediately love it simply because it belongs to a hero currently doesn't have a show to watch. The general audience who would enjoy anything simply because it’s WWE has less of a tangible voice, and no home in today's professional wrestling.
The fan who feels the nostalgic ache for The Golden Age has to sift through a sea of internet complainers to get at a brief spark of what once made them believe in professional wrestling. That general audience gets a glimpse of the magic in your opening “Then, Now, Forever” signature, in the gorgeous vignette that played prior to the opening of WrestleMania 32, in the occasional off the cuff promo, in a sweaty, post-match ringside interview, and in a five-star classic that brings the house down. But again, it’s often only a glimpse partially because of the smarky environment currently surrounding the product.
WWE is not the local Whole Foods of professional wrestling.
WWE is the Disney of professional wrestling.
And the WWE is great at being Disney. That is the WWE's strength.
And people who go to Disney World do not care if Mickey Mouse’s pants aren’t “the right color”. They’ll just see Mickey Mouse. They’ll hug him, they’ll make great memories, and they’ll go home happy.
That's the WWE's audience. That's your sweet spot.
On the flip side, the patron who visits his local Whole Foods store has a specific set of conditions and requirements in mind before he even sets foot in the store. If Gluten is anywhere in sight, suddenly he’s having a terrible day and the manager and the cashier are going to hear about it. That’s the mentality. It’s easily predicted because it’s revealed itself so many times in the past. That is also the actual experience that patron is seeking. Now imagine that particular patron walks into a Whole Foods only to discover it's actually a Disney-store selling Disney-DVDs and Disney toys.
It's a counterintuitive business-model for the WWE to cater to that kind of IWC-fan. It’s not that there aren’t lessons to be learned from those fans. It’s not that indy wrestlers aren’t great workers and can’t contribute to the company. It’s that, long-term, prioritizing the needs of the smallest, most specific group of consumer makes the WWE a smaller, more specific brand when, in reality, it’s much bigger than that. Barclays reveals how catering to that niche-fan doesn’t really work. And that's okay. It's not supposed to work. It's an entirely different product for an entirely different consumer. The WWE is not indy-wrestling. It shouldn't try to be indy-wrestling just as Disney shouldn't fund the next Quentin Tarantino revenge film. It would be a misallocation of resources and lead to confusion among consumers.
The ultimate lesson from SummerSlam 2016 is the exact same lesson the WWE's greatest heroes have always taught; be yourself and you will succeed.